Preview: Let’s Get Physical at the 9th Annual Physical Theater Festival July 16-24

Chicago’s Physical Theater Festival returns for the ninth year with in-person, indoor and outdoor performances, plus four workshops by festival artists, July 16-24, following the 2020 virtual festival. 

The week features performances by Windy City artists, along with those from the United Kingdom and Argentina, and kicks off with free, family-friendly outdoor shows on Saturday, July 16, 2-8 p.m., at Nichols Park, 1355 E. 53rd St., as part of the Park District’s Night Out at the Parks series. The other shows, workshops and conversations, co-sponsored by the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance and the MacArthur Funds for Culture, Equity, and the Arts at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, will be held at the Den Theater, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., and run July 18-24: 

Company to X For in Surface Tension

Ticketing info
General admission $21 
Industry/Students/Seniors/Veterans $16
Festival passes for all five General shows $86
Industry/Students/Seniors/Veterans $61
Single workshop $51
Four workshops $181

Tickets and passes are available at

Den Theatre’s COVID policy is here.  

Festival co-founders Marc Frost and Alice da Cunha will present Chicago’s Theatre Lumina; physical actor, juggler and performer Alex M. Knapp; clown and puppeteer Sharaina “Shay” Turnage; and contemporary circus Company To X ForUK artists include Kuumba Nia Arts and Unlock the Chains Collective, two groups dedicated to bringing to life the stories and histories of people of African and Caribbean descent in the United Kingdom; plus Argentinian artist Payasos Cenizas.

Frost said that the return to live shows is a much needed balm for an artform that depends precisely on human, physical contact. Da Cunha added that two years of virtual interaction felt like an eternity, and is happy to welcome back local and international performers to celebrate their resilience during these difficult times. 

July 16 Shows at Nichols Park

Performances by Alex M. Knapp (Chicago), Sharaina Turnage (Chicago) and Kuumba Nia Arts (UK)

Physical actor, juggler, magician and circus performer Alex M. Knapp attended the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University for music as well as Columbia College Chicago for theater. Knapp has performed with Redmoon Theater, Adventure Stage, the Inconvenience Theater, and with 360 Entertainment’s national tour of Peter Pan. At clubs, bars, parties and festivals, he performs with his band the Amen Brothers on vocals, ukulele and cello.

Actor, puppeteer and clown Sharaina “Shay” Turnage is an actor, writer, voice actor, puppeteer, and clown from the south side. Turnage has toured with Manual Cinema and Theater Unspeakable, and performed with Free Street. Turnage studied “Du” Theater in Suriname, South America, and was one of the first (and currently only North American) to perform the art form in Suriname and in the US. 

Kuumba Nia Arts is a Black-led, Oxford-based touring theater company that produces and develops work based on traditional African theatrical forms and aesthetics.  In Swahili, kuumba means creativity and niacan be translated as intention or purpose.  

July 18-24 Shows at the Den Theater

Monday, July 18

7pm – Scratch Night

Scratch Night is a curated, quarterly theater showcase of works-in-progress featuring innovative local theater makers, featuring 6-7 previews of original contemporary, visual, and physical theater by different Chicago artists to foster their development. 

Song of Home

Tuesday, July 19 and Wednesday, July 20

7pm – Song of Home by Theatre Lumina (USA/Chicago)

Founded in 2014 by Monica Payne, Theatre Lumina, a group of artists devoted to cross-cultural collaboration and international exchange, presents its newest devised work. Song of Home is a series of movement etudes confronting America’s complicated relationship with global displacement. Experienced by three displaced women coming to the US, Song of Home is a theatrical meditation on the rich dynamic between a country’s identity and its accountability to the displaced. 

Wednesday, July 20 and Thursday, July 21

9pm – Surface Tension by Company To X For (USA/Chicago)

Surface Tension takes a beautiful and daring look at a queer friendship. At points ecstatic, dark, searching, and joyful, this intimate circus show with Liam Bradley and David Chervony celebrates vulnerable connection through sincere juggling. Utilizing acrobatics, weight-sharing, object manipulation, and dance, Surface Tension addresses the fear of loss, the power of trust, and the joy of vulnerability.  

Company to X For in Surface Tension

Thursday, July 21-Saturday, July 23

7pm (Thursday and Friday), 9pm (Saturday) – Sold by Kuumba Nia Arts (UK) and Unlock the Chains Collective (UK)

Born into slavery in Bermuda, Mary Prince went on to become an autobiographer and champion of freedom. Published in 1831, her book Sold had an electrifying effect on the abolitionist movement and helped free many enslaved Africans. Through theater, song, music, drumming and dance, this Black British theater piece is inspired by the storytelling traditions of the West African griot.

Kuumba Nia Arts was founded in 2009 to fuse drama, song, dance and ritual and to bring African and Caribbean peoples’ histories and contemporary stories to life through theater and film. Euton Daley founded Unlock the Chains Collective in 1986 to explore performance poetry as a theatrical form, and to develop a dialogue with various social struggles at the time. 


Friday, July 22-Sunday, July 25

9pm (Friday), 7pm (Saturday) and 3pm (Sunday) – Ruedos by Payasos Cenizas (Argentina). Co-presented with Chicago Latino Theater Alliance.

Silence, laughter and poetry come together in a delicate and fun show that starts from minimal gestures and reaches the great questions of each and every one of us, by the hand of an artist. A clown show full of silences, angels and demons, where the body is in charge of writing words in a universal language. 

Agustín Catriel Soler (Payasos Cenizas) is a founding member of the Los Tarantela theater company and has toured Europe doing presentations at the Cirque Starlight in Switzerland and at the Martin Handson’s Winter Circus in the Netherlands. 


Workshops at the Den Theater

Thursday, July 21, 10am-1 pm

The Triptych: Storytelling in Three Panels

Taught by Monica Payne and Theatre Lumina members

This workshop will explore physical expression and storytelling through the lens of the triptych, a three-paneled composition drawn from the world of visual art. Through various exercises primarily based in Viewpoints, the workshop will unlock the vocabulary necessary for making innovative, physical new work. Students will have the opportunity to create their own triptych and to discuss strategies for using it as either source material or character research. 

Friday, July 22, 10am-1pm

Neoteric Juggling

Taught by Company To X For

An all-level crash course in contemporary juggling and a deep dive into Company To X For’s creative practices. Participants will engage with the principles of object manipulation through composition, improvisation, and narrative storytelling, learning a toolkit of exercises to explore the possibilities of juggling in performance. 

Saturday, July 23, 10am-1pm


Taught by Kuumba Nia Arts and Unlock the Chains Collective

A practical exploration of the company's storytelling style as used in their award-winning production of Sold, the story of Mary Prince. Participants will work to create short pieces of theater that move from improvisation to structure, and explore how we shift from past to present to future. Utilization and fusion of prop, song, music, movement, symbol, character and chorus in creating stories will also be explored. 

Sunday, July 24, 10am.-1pm

The Clown Body

Taught by Payasos Cenizas

This workshop focuses on the construction of an available, sensitive, precise and present body, The Clown Body, through corporal, comic, and poetic writing. The precision of the "movement," together with the "decision," both fundamental elements in a scene. 

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.